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Tech innovations for the older generation: The opportunities for UK start-ups

While there might be lots of talk about millennials and how entrepreneurs can exploit that market, Britain's ageing population also offers many untapped opportunities for start-ups. Dan Martin looks at the options. 

The latest official government data shows 18% of the UK population is currently over 65. By 2036, that proportion is expected to reach almost 25%, as the total population grows from 65.6m in 2016 to 74m in 2036.

There’s no doubt that Britons are living longer and as that happens, technology will continue to rapidly improve and further permeate our everyday lives.

A 2016 report by the Government Office for Science warned that Britain's older people must not be left behind.

"The ability to use technology, access services, travel easily and socialise will be particularly important as the population ages," it said.

"Levels of connectivity can determine work, education, health and care outcomes.

"Beyond the ability to physically travel, new technologies and digital tools have an increasingly important effect on a person’s ability to interact with the world around them."

And amongst the older population, there's a big demand for the latest tech.

The rise of the 'Instagrans'

Office of National Statistics figures show that around 75% of adults aged over 65 use the internet, with women aged 75 and above showing the greatest rise of any demographic group.

The proportion of over 65s using social networks like Twitter and Facebook, dubbed ‘Instagrans’, also rose from 15% in 2015 to 23% in 2016.

But while the social media giants of Silicon Valley may be providing the elderly with ways to chat to their friends and stay in touch with the grandkids, is the demand for other solutions being met?

A 2017 survey by Ipsos MORI for the energy and services company Centrica showed demand for Internet of Things (IoT) technologies among the over 60s is being driven by the desire for independent living and a better quality of life.

It found that a third of people aged 60+ either own or are interested in buying a smart connected home device.

Of those who already have the devices, 58% are using smartphones to control appliances such as heating, lights and security systems.

Another 17% think the technology can improve their lives and help them stay connected to friends and family, a key factor in tackling loneliness.

The Campaign to End Loneliness found that 9 in 10 people fear being alone as they grow older, while the London School of Economics estimates that the UK’s loneliness epidemic costs £6,000 per person for a decade of an older person's life in health costs and pressure on local services.

But despite the appetite for smart connected home technology, the Centrica study said elderly people are currently being overlooked by IoT companies which creates an opportunity for innovative start-ups.

The report revealed that 33% of over 60s have heard of smart home technology, but know nothing else about it.

The Active Ageing Challenge

To meet the need, Centrica has turned to start-ups through its Active Ageing Challenge which has a total prize fund of £100,000 up for grabs.

"Living an active life as we get older is one of society's biggest challenges," says Sam Salisbury, director at Centrica Innovations, which is investing £100m over the next five years in small business incubation and acceleration programmes.

"That's why more needs to be done to engage the over 60s and to develop tech solutions that meet their living needs and ambitions.

"Our global start-up challenge is dedicated to exploring the role that technology can play as we age.

"We want to find solutions to help people thrive as they get older and we see a huge opportunity to collaborate with the start-up community to drive innovation and create new services and products for our customers."

Entries must be in by 5 February and shortlisted applicants will be invited to pitch to a panel of Centrica's senior leaders on 15 March in London.

Targeting the older consumer

Salisbury says one of the biggest barriers to adoption of new technology by older people is a lack of confidence and patience in getting used to new ways of doing things.

He believes there's often the need for a "mindset change" to understand how using something new can make tasks simpler and to get over the embarrassment and frustration it can cause.

This is something entrepreneurs looking to target this market need to bear in mind.

"People are looking for secure, reliable, easy to use and non-intrusive products and services," Salisbury explains. "Start-ups need to focus on the problem they are trying to solve for the individual.

So what kind of businesses is Centrica looking for?  

Having already supported 25 enterprises and invested £9m in 14 start-ups, Salisbury has an insight into what makes a great innovator.

"The types that really stand out and impress us are those that have a lot of drive and passion," he says.  

"We also look at whether their idea is solving a big problem and doing something meaningful for society.

"The most successful innovators will focus on what the consumer needs and how they think. It's not about creating care products for consumers but about creating consumer products that care."

This post is sponsored by the Centrica Active Ageing Challenge.

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